September 16, 2009

Atheism has won the debate

I think it should be clear to any thinking person that atheism has won. Not in terms of numbers, of course. People who call themselves religious still heavily outnumber those who say they are atheists, though the gap is closing. In a future post I will argue that the gap is closer than the raw numbers indicate but this post is about how atheists have clearly won the debate over whether it makes sense to believe that god exists.

The evidence for this is that religious intellectuals have pretty much given up on a god that has even a remote resemblance to what the word usually conjures up, and have instead created a faux god that merely provides them with a metaphor of transcendence to cling on to.

One can see this in the problem faced by religious intellectuals like H. E. Baber and Robert Wright. They are forced to agree with the atheist position that a god who intervenes in any way in the working of the universe is incompatible with a scientific worldview, since they realize that abandoning methodological naturalism puts them in bed with the religious crazies. But for whatever reason they are reluctant to call themselves atheists, so they are forced to invent the Slacker God to whom they can pledge allegiance and thus retain their religious credentials.

More evidence of the intellectual rout of religion can be seen in the September 11, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal, where the paper asked Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to contribute a pair of articles on the topic Man vs. God. Each person apparently knew the other was writing but did not see their essay.

Armstrong is a former Catholic nun and a religious apologist who has written a huge number of books on comparative religion. Dawkins, of course, needs no introduction.

One should really read Armstrong's entire essay to fully appreciate the smokescreen of language that tries to hide modern theology's retreat in the face of science. I will quote just a small piece of it that captures the unenviable position that people like her and Baber and Wright find themselves in as a result of their need to simultaneously cling on to scientific respectability while not abandoning religion entirely.

The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.

All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth ("Existence is suffering"), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God.

So there we are. As far as Armstrong I concerned, the god that most people can recognize has disappeared, to be replaced by a Zen-like aesthetic, an art form that provides an experience similar to the appreciation of poetry or music or painting. She goes so far as to equate god with nirvana, the Buddhists' belief in a state of nonbeing that one supposedly enters if one manages to break free of the birth-death-rebirth cycle.

Dawkins, of course, has heard all this mush before and ruthlessly demolishes it. Being 'rude' and 'uncivil' as he is, he does not try to pretend that the position of Armstrong and others like her makes any sense but instead clinically dissects her argument to reveal that at its core is – nothing.

Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."

Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.

This is why I say that atheists have won. The sophisticated religious apologists have essentially conceded the argument and retreated to a small corner of the religious world that is cut off from that of the vast majority of religious believers. They are atheists in all but name.

POST SCRIPT: What happens when theology gets too sophisticated for its own good

Jesus and Mo weigh in on Karen Armstrong's view of god.


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Incidentally, I read the Wall Street Journal piece before I read your post and also am not familiar with Karen Armstrong's writing or opinions. From my reading of her essay I got the impression that she is a so-called "good atheist". Having now learned that she is actually a religious apologist I have to wholeheartedly agree that Dawkins wins that debate. He was dead-on in his claim that the "sophisticated modern theologian" is practically indistinguishable from an atheist.

Posted by Jared on September 16, 2009 10:34 AM

prof. singham.

i was a student of yours back in '96 at CWRU. a grad student there now turned me on to your blog. i appreciate how clearly and succinctly you state your thoughts; whereas, i often express mine with sardonic humor and sarcasm which some people just don't appreciate. i'm an atheist, but i'm currently reading the qurán since i'm working in egypt, and it is ramadan. i'm reading it for the educational aspect and to take advantage of the opportunity to ask any questions i have of the local muslims. sadly, more often than not, they take offense to my questioning their religion at all.

thanks for a well-written blog, and i'll be a regular reader. best wishes.

forever and gone.

Posted by zac on September 16, 2009 11:54 AM

I feel the Holy Spirit will always grab more followers for Christianity than a lack of feeling will provide for other non-religious groups.

Posted by Louis Card on September 16, 2009 01:20 PM

well sure, any thinking person is more likely to be an athiest

the god of the gaps has disappeared from any actual debate

and now needs to just disappear in fact.

when you look at the result of religion - intolerance, discrimination and horrible social policy (overpopulation, global AIDs crisis while the churches teach no condoms)

how can any thinking person want to support corrupt, wealth hoarding, child molesting, women as second class organizations like religion?

Posted by nina on September 16, 2009 11:28 PM

Mr. Singham,
Are you sure that God does not exist? How sure are you?

Posted by R. Hoeppner on September 17, 2009 11:47 AM

Mr. Hoeppner,

I am as sure that god does not exist as I am sure that unicorns don't exist, and for the same reason: there is no evidence for either. They are both fictional legends.

Posted by Mano on September 17, 2009 01:22 PM

Nina said, "when you look at the result of religion - intolerance, discrimination and horrible social policy (overpopulation, global AIDs crisis while the churches teach no condoms)"

Yet, this can be said of many governments. Institutionalized intolerance. Laws that facilitate discrimination, and horrible social policies.

Are you willing to throw away the idea of government because some governments are corrupt?

Your analogy is flawed.

Posted by anon on September 17, 2009 07:28 PM

More interesting to this reader would be to see Dawkins, or this blog author, clinically dissect the argumentation of the "sophisticated apologists" who have NOT left the fold of literal religious (or in my forthcoming examples, Christian) belief.One doesn't have to look outside of the Southern Baptist Convention to find serious apologists, not for the Slacker God, but for either the Incompetent God or the Malevolent God.That is, Christians who hold some sort of quasi-Arminian theology ("things are this way because...God loves us so much he values our free-will enough to let all this suffering go on"), and those who hold an ever-so-slightly more Biblical theology of Calvinism ("God does what he darn well pleases, as pre-planned from the start, and isn't to be questioned").They doggedly insist on the true belief of actual religious conviction, yet insist due to their sophistication that they are not the bullseye of the arguments wielded by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. In fact, they just laugh at Harris and Dawkins, and ignore them for the most part.I submit that it is they who should be the subject of "new" atheism's focus.

Posted by Derek on September 21, 2009 09:33 AM

@Mano: "I am as sure that god does not exist as I am sure that unicorns don't exist, and for the same reason: there is no evidence for either. They are both fictional legends."

And if unicorns were really rhinos?

And if millions (billions?!?) of humans really do subject-o-mysticaliciously experience the divine?

And if evolution could make unihorned horses on other planets?

And if our current universe is a recursive creation by an Israeli, male-chauvinist physicist who peeked into the test-tube and said, 'Boo!'...?

Knowledge, so fragile.

Posted by LordOfMictlan on September 21, 2009 02:18 PM

Btw, I like the articles.

Posted by LordOfMictlan on September 21, 2009 02:47 PM


To answer your questions in order:

1. If unicorns were re-defined to be rhinos, then of course they exist because we have evidence for rhinos. In fact, this is how religions save face, by re-defining things to keep up with scientific advances, so that the behemoths and dragons in the Bible are identified with dinosaurs, etc.

2. Since their "experience" consists of thoughts that occur in their mind, all this means is that they all believe the same myths.

3. Evolution does not say that unicorns could not come into being, either on Earth or anywhere else. All I am saying is that we have no evidence that they exist, or ever existed.

4. I am not sure what this point about an Israeli scientist is trying to say. One can create any number of possible scenarios for anything. But unless some credible evidence is produced for them, there is no reason to believe in them.

5. It is religious beliefs that are fragile because they do not rest on evidence, but are entirely the product of human imagination. Scientific knowledge is quite robust because it can be investigated systematically.

Posted by Mano on September 21, 2009 03:00 PM


You raise an interesting point. I will try and respond to those types of arguments in a future post but it would help me if you could give some links to articles that make those cases.

Posted by Mano on September 21, 2009 03:02 PM

1. Unicorn: 'A creature resembling a horse, with a single horn in the center of its forehead.'
Referents: Multiple and fairly specific
Objectively Knowable: Yes
Accessible Range of Potential Evidence: Yes
Objective Evidence of 1 or More Referents: Yes

God: Practically Undefinable
Referents: Multiple and mostly vague
Objectively Knowable: Unknown
Accessible Range of Potential Evidence: Unknown
Objective Evidence of 1 or More Referents: Unknown

Belief in some referents != non-belief in all referents.

As much as I like the illustration of unicorns as a rhetorical funny, it doesn't seem that similar to God. And it would be funny+1 if we found a fossil or a likelihood of a non-deleterious 1-horn mutation in the Equus genus. Various ancient Greek authors mention donkeys, deer, oxen, rhinos or some mixture as a unicorn. Maybe something like we see in this link:

2. Not sure I follow you there. The formal myths don't seem compatible. And I don't know how one could currently compare the contents of subjective neurological experiences or determine if they are merely neurological in nature. Though I suspect they are merely neurological.

3. Considering the size of the universe, sci-fi authors would have no problem assuming the existence of something within the range of unicorn referents (we already have things loosely like that here). Captain Kirk repeatedly found even gods in his travels. Without ownership of all the evidence, a lack of evidence is not sufficient for committed disbelief, merely non-belief. Though I'm not sure how sure non-belief can be before it becomes disbelief.

4. All explanations of our universe currently lie beyond the range of accessible evidence (or so I assume), even the true one. And yet I suspect it is true. That means that one or some of our fantasies could be true, despite the lack of evidence. Again, disbelief vs non-belief. Possibilities abound.

There are some very fun Dan Simmons novels (Illium/Olympos) that explore the idea of future humans becoming the actual Greek gods of myth, a cute chicken/egg problem.

5. God is a subject that seems to defy systematic investigation. Scientific knowledge is only as robust as its evidence, and many scientific knowings about lesser-known things have been broken with further investigation. Fantasies are extremely flexible and bend before the strong winds of fact.

Anyway, all that to say that unicorns may not be a good measure of non-belief/disbelief in God.

Posted by LordOfMictlan on September 21, 2009 08:55 PM


To start, you could look here, or more quickly (and without spending money), here. More in-depth, and perhaps more interesting, content is here.

Posted by Derek on September 28, 2009 09:38 AM

It says my comment has been posted on the main page, but I look here and don't see it...

Posted by Derek on September 28, 2009 10:11 AM


For reasons that are unclear to me, there is sometimes a time lag before the comments actually get posted.

Posted by Mano on September 28, 2009 10:55 AM

:::Anyway, all that to say that unicorns may not be a good measure of non-belief/disbelief in God.:::

They're perfectly fine, because no one has seen a unicorn, and people have seen rhinos. I have. Re-defining rhinos as unicorns is extremely disingenuous. Only Xian apologists have tried the rhino as unicorn debate. Everyone else knows that rhinos are rhinos, and unicorns are some fictional character of mythology. Period.

But, fine, you won't accept unicorns as a valid measure of non-belief. Then how about Santa Claus? The myths of Santa and the Zombie Hebrew are pretty close.

Posted by Aqua on November 1, 2009 04:21 PM

Your quotation of Dawkins dismantling Armstrong was just mirrrored by Dan Dennett at AII.

Posted by Aerik on November 2, 2009 12:42 PM

Calling Karen Armstrong an atheist and proclaiming "victory" as an atheist is a hollow one at best, not because Karen Armstrong is an atheist (for if she says she is not, you have absolutely no reason to dispute her) but rather because you are misusing the term again. If your argument is that an atheist is someone who believes that God does not interfere in our daily lives, then, yes, Karen Armstrong is an atheist and so am I. However, I certainly do not accept that definition and I would tend to believe that Karen Armstrong does not either. Just because we conceptualize God differently than most believers does not mean that we are not believers. We simply treat God differently. I, for one, believe that God created the universe and all of its fundamental physical laws, including the universal constructs and then left it alone. One could even see this conception in terms of the multiverse wherein God creates a multitude of universes, indeed, every single possible universe and then leaves it alone.

Over time, what religious people (such as I) refer to as a spiritual experience and which irreligious people such as you regard as halluclination may have allowed certain individuals (Mohammad, Jesus, etc.) to experience God through what we might refer to as a state of metaconsciousness. These experiences, which were never completely understood by those who experienced it, were related in what we call scripture and because the perfect (God) was conceptualized or possibly even experienced by the imperfect (man), the result is, well, imperfection, especially since it is rendered in a universally imperfect script known as human language. Interestingly, at least one of these documents, known as the Qu'ran, may be closer to God simply because there are significant passages that take on an almost metaphysical cantor that cannot truly be understood unless one is in a similar stupor, which is one of the reasons why Sufism, far from being radical, is actually a fairly mainstream approach.

Essentially to understand and to come to appreciate God, one must experience Him but that does not mean that God interferes in the universe. What most believers refer to as "experiencing God" simply is this transcendential state whereby one experiences "gnosis" and thus could be thought of as receiving the divine spark but which could also just as easily be the result of the temporary rewiring of one's electrical pathways in the brain, as is shown occurs when one is in one of these states since such "trances" demonstrably alter brainwave patterns: believers simply are wired differently, which is why nonbelievers who are incapable of understanding the subtleties because they share not our axioms are quick to claim "victory."

However, such "victory" can only occur if (a) we agree to the same rules of the game and (b) we agree to the definition of victory. One cannot simply declare victory and go home. This is the fundamental arrogance of atheists being shown again but, I submit to you, that if it had been a leading doctrinaire strong theist going up against Richard Dawkins we would have two websites proclaiming "victory": one by the atheists and the other by the theists and the level of displayed arrogance would be identical.

No, it seems that the principal argument against Armstrong is that she is not a doctrinaire strong theist. She is, in fact, an agnostic (and a strong agnostic to boot) and that is what makes all the difference. The mere fact that we believe in a God that does not interfere in the affairs of the world does not in any way, shape, or form diminish our faith that God does, in fact, exist. Indeed, it is central and core to our own very existence (that is the existence of us our selves), not in that we would disappear as entities but that we would disappear as strong agnostics/weak theists without it.

In order to dismiss our arguments, Richard Dawkins and you, Dr. Singham, well, dismiss them without understanding them. You simply argue that since we do not believe in a God like the majority of believers do, we, therefore, do not believe in God. That is at worst a lie and at best a complete mistating of any semblance of reality.

We believe in God. It is difficult to rationally explain to someone who cannot comprehend that which cannot be comprehended by those who have never experienced it and so we tend to retreat into quiet rationalizations rather than justifications for belief. In a nutshell, why do we believe in God and why is it that we are not atheists when we seem (to you) to be so similar? We believe because we accept certain axioms -- and you don't. Yet we know that we are not the same as you are. You want to battle us on logic and you find that you cannot win your battles because we have a position that, quite simply, is unassailable by either theists or atheists.

Let us understand how Dawkins inaccurately has portrayed the debate because he cannot comprehend the Armstrong argument (due to writing from a different axiomatic base). I do not claim to comprehend Dawkins (because, to me, atheism is incomprehensible) but I do think I see where the error in Dawkins' thinking is, even if all atheists will like to proclaim victory.

First of all, Singham (and Dawkins) have an error in assuming that "winning" a debate is a win for atheism. It can never be. If the atheist side "won" in any sense the debate, the debate would have to have been won by Dawkins, not atheism, and the victory would be over Armstrong, not theism, since Dawkins represents one strand of atheism and Armstrong represents one strand of theism (and neither are the definitive champions of either).

However, the central problem is, again, like so many things, one of definition. Let us take apart Dawkins' argument:

"Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism!"

This is a mischaracterization of Armstrong's position because it systematically denies the conception of existence that is gnosis in place of a conception of existence that is "objective reality", i.e., physically detectable by science.

However, many, if not most, Muslims would argue that God cannot exist in objective reality, despite the erroneous claim by Dawkins. To quote Dawkins: "They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists."

Here is the logical error: They believe in God . . . and that means they believe he exists in objective reality.

Now what is objective reality: well, it means that you can scientifically prove it. But that means that everyone who is a strong atheist is not being defined by Dawkins as an atheist, a definition that us strong agnostics strongly deny. This is as silly and baseless a claim as fundamentalist protestants claiming that Roman Catholics are not Christians because they reject the claims of fundamentalist protestants even though the atheists try the "big tent" approach and the fundamentalists try the "empty the tent of all but us" approach.

Essentially, Dawkins "wins" not by cogently examining Armstrong's argument about God's existence but by redefining God in a way that Armstrong would object. You don't "win" by redefining terms so as to make the debate over before it begins. Indeed, I would argue that this redefinition, if anything, proves that atheism lost the debate!

Let us see why:

Christian: God created the world in 4004 BC before he created the universe

Atheist: yes, that nonsense is there -- but it is nonsense because in Genesis 1 it says that God created the Earth BEFORE the stars.

Scientist: Um, no. More like 4.5 billion years ago -- and the universe is about 13.4 billion years old

Christian: Well, maybe we are talking some metaphors here but God created man in his own image and then created all the animals

Atheist: Yeah, right.

Scientist: Um, animals were created first. In fact, man evolved from animals.

Christian: Okay, but that process was directed by God!

Don't you see the parallel? The Christian keeps losing the argument, so he redefines the game. By moving the goalposts, he declares victory.

Dawkins does the same thing and it is shameful and dispicable. Atheists can't deal with our "sophisticated theology" and because they can't just agree to disagree (hey, we don't have a problem with that -- we are strong agnostics, after all, and we freely admit that God cannot be proven one way or another even though we still believe in Him), atheists apparently have some hidden insecurity about our belief: our belief in God fundamentally challenges their atheism because, guess what? If you admit that we are right (and you know we are right because you basically have admitted that there is no proof of God and you present absolutely no proof that can does not exist, so, you are actually all agnostics, although weak agnostics). So, you see, the debate really is over:


But that means, guess what? BOTH strong atheists and strong theists lose and that's why both sides hate us so. God, it is lonely being right. ;)

Oh, but that doesn't explain WHY we are such a threat to you. Well, the problem is that if we can believe without proof (the fundamental definition of faith), then, so, someday, might you and that is what scares you so. Hmm... well, of course, by projection, that certainly explains why I don't really like weak atheists very much since I could slip down that path but I have an extremely good reason: I could get killed for departing my faith. Does that mean that there is a corresponding atheistic "hit squad" to target all of you atheists who stray? It would explain quite a lot of your militancy towards religion and hostility to even the possibility that other people will believe in God...

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 3, 2010 01:04 AM


Sorry, I didn't see your comment.

"They're perfectly fine, because no one has seen a unicorn, and people have seen rhinos. I have. Re-defining rhinos as unicorns is extremely disingenuous. Only Xian apologists have tried the rhino as unicorn debate. Everyone else knows that rhinos are rhinos, and unicorns are some fictional character of mythology. Period."

If the only possible definition of a unicorn is your specific, modern fairy tale version, then you are right. But the concept of unicorns probably has its origin in observations of real animals. Can you say the same for gods?

To describe your knowledge of nonexisting gods as the same as that of nonexisting unicorns seems to suggest that gods might exist in some form, even if somewhat different than what they are now conceived to be. Is that the position you take?

"But, fine, you won't accept unicorns as a valid measure of non-belief. Then how about Santa Claus? The myths of Santa and the Zombie Hebrew are pretty close."

Well, that depends on who you mean by 'Santa Claus.' I think there's some historical basis for that character as well, though not as much as unicorns.

Posted by LordOfMictlan on March 18, 2011 05:35 PM